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Singh’s nuke gamble II
- PM leads effort to get India a place in nuclear club

New Delhi, Nov. 30: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s talks in Port of Spain last week may eventually lead to an initiative to amend the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) to include India, along with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, as a nuclear weapons state.

The Prime Minister is understood to have broached the idea of India’s de jure recognition as a nuclear weapons state with two of the five legal nuclear weapons states. The five such states are China, France, Russia, the UK and the US.

India is already a de facto nuclear weapons state, but under the NPT, it has not been recognised as one and will, therefore, be denied the rights of the big five under the treaty for ever unless there is an amendment to the pact.

This is notwithstanding the nuclear deals signed recently between India and several other countries and the permission given by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to its members to trade in nuclear material and technology with India.

The issue of amending the NPT at a review conference of the treaty in New York next year is expected to figure in India’s talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin when Singh visits Moscow from December 6.

This incipient effort is said to have been a major consideration behind India’s decision last week at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna to vote against Iran for violating its commitments as a signatory to the NPT.

The decision to vote along with the five nuclear powers to censure Iran was taken at the personal intervention of the Prime Minister.

Singh forcefully argued at internal meetings of his top national security and foreign policy team that the sanctity of India’s recently signed safeguards agreement with the IAEA would be questioned by New Delhi’s detractors if India did not vote on “Iran’s failure to notify the agency” of the violation of “its obligations under the Subsidiary Arrangements to its Safeguards Agreement” as alleged by IAEA director-general Mohamed ElBaradei in a report.

The effort to amend the NPT is being handled directly by the Prime Minister with only one of his top aides as party to the actual discussions, which are still at the stage of being broached in restricted meetings with the heads of state concerned.

It is too early to say whether the effort will succeed. But if an amendment makes it to the floor of the NPT review conference, it will be the biggest foreign policy challenge undertaken by any Prime Minister since Jawaharlal Nehru defied both the US and the USSR and launched the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).

If the NPT is finally amended to include India as a nuclear weapons state, Manmohan Singh would find his place in history as the man who corrected the biggest injustice done to India by the international community since Independence.

The amendment to give India its rightful place in the global security framework does not even require changing a word, but merely two digits.

Article IX (3) of the NPT currently reads: “For the purposes of this Treaty, a nuclear-weapon State is one which has manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device prior to 1 January 1967.”

If the last two digits of this sentence are changed from 67 to 75, history would have been revisited and India would become a legally recognised nuclear weapons state.

The argument within the Prime Minister’s inner circle in support of the initiative is that even if the amendment fails to make it next year in New York, it is possible to build a momentum towards change during and after the review conference once the NPT signatories get used to the idea and are aided by India’s growing clout on the global stage.

Article VIII of the NPT says a special conference to amend the treaty can be called any time if one-third of the signatories ask for changes.

Accordingly, the amendment can be passed by a simple majority, but it requires a “Yes” vote by all the five nuclear weapons states which tested their bombs before January 1, 1967.

As of now, it is unlikely that either the US or China will support the idea of amending the NPT.

However, if the idea gains momentum, India will use its plans to buy 126 multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA), the biggest military aviation deal in the history of mankind, to woo key signatories to the NPT.

There are six contenders for the MRCA deal, including companies from France, Russia and the US. If the Obama administration wants to find the big-ticket item in its ongoing search for catapulting Indo-US relations, Bush-style, support for an NPT amendment is just what it could hit on.

But Barack Obama is expected to face stiff opposition to an amendment to the NPT — even if he were to support it — from America’s non-proliferation lobby. Besides, adding one more nuclear weapons state to a treaty that was supposed to curb proliferation may not sit well with Obama’s ambitious plan to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

External affairs ministry spokesperson Vishnu Prakash said in Port of Spain on Friday after the Prime Minister had met French President Nicolas Sarkozy that the two leaders had “expressed satisfaction at their ongoing co-operation in the civil nuclear energy sector”. Much is to be read between those lines.

A shot in the arm for what could be the final curtain on India’s long nuclear winter, however, was a statement by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper after his meeting with Singh in Port of Spain on Saturday.

“Canada is a supplier, obviously an integrated supplier, in the nuclear energy field and India is an expanding economy that has great energy needs,” Harper said.

Proliferation has been a bee in the Canadian bonnet for decades, but Canada’s decision to finally move ahead with a nuclear deal with India was yet another reminder that a sound economy and business trumps everything else when New Delhi is seeking its rightful place on security issues.

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